Chris McGrath: Berbatov: the beautiful and the damned

The Last Word

Click to follow
The Independent Football

The Golden Boot shared by Carlos Tevez and Dimitar Berbatov last season has malignly reversed the properties of the glass slipper. Whoever fits this shoe can go scrub the scullery floor.

One has been banished altogether; the other merely marginalised.

Tevez is being carted into the transfer window in infamy – at worst, boarded up like some gibbering, drooling freak for a distant, barbarian circus; at best, offered as a disappeared masterpiece to a private collector who doesn't ask questions. Berbatov has meanwhile waited, patient and dignified, until seizing the chance to show that he remains one of the most captivating talents in world football.

After four exquisite goals in two games, Manchester United must this weekend decide whether to extend the contract that expires at the end of the season. Otherwise Berbatov, 31 next month, can leave in the summer as a free agent – unless, perhaps, someone is able to hasten his emancipation in January. This week, Thierry Henry, a multiple Golden Boot winner, has been trying to establish whether he and his old club have declined at a workably parallel rate. But Berbatov to Bayer Leverkusen would surely be a more felicitous homecoming. Whereas Thierry Henry's pace was critical to his pomp, Berbatov's trademark languor means he will not depreciate as rapidly.

When his team-mates warm up, covered in synthetics and logos, you half-expect Berbatov to amble on to the field in a velvet dressing gown or smoking jacket. It seemed improper, as he waited to take his penalty against Wigan the other day, that the ball was not conveyed to the spot by a butler carrying a tray. Berbatov is depicted as the Premier League's Lord Lindsay, who practised his hurdling in Chariots Of Fire with a glass of champagne balanced on each obstacle. Obligingly, he has even been photographed with a cigarette – albeit not, so far, tapping one against an embossed silver case.

But this patrician image takes no account of his essential austerity. He has no airs, no braggadocio. Instead, his nonchalance reflects the secret knowledge that things envied by millions – talent, wealth – are ultimately so frivolous. When he scores, he looks embarrassed by the excitement around him, rarely managing more than a bashful smile. To the greatest artist among its present cast, the "Theatre of Dreams" is a theatre of the absurd.

And that's what makes Berbatov so bewitching – that his aristocratic play seems so consistent with his broader nature. For it is a perennial paradox of football that those who suggest a sublime aesthetic sense, on the field often turn out to be such perfect dolts. Sometimes a single, random dimension of his personality takes a man tragically beyond his competence – think only of Paul Gascoigne.

In Berbatov, however, the glory of his football is a function of the same, bleak intelligence that resists its trappings and deceits. There is seamless congruity between the player and the man.

Evidently, he finds it distasteful to dwell on a childhood of bread queues in a Bulgarian mining town. It is not, he urges, as though he endured those privations alone. But perhaps it was in poverty that he learnt his lordly perspective. Off the field, Berbatov turns his back on garish indulgence, returning faithfully to his homeland to support children's charities or till vegetable patches with his grandparents.

On the field, of course, his insouciance is fatally treated as indolence – even indifference. These days, after all, even the angels of Barcelona press manically all over the pitch. And a demonstrable willingness to leave your lungs on the grass tends to exculpate all manner of inadequacies in a footballer. Berbatov is duly represented as a "luxury" – and one, it seems, Sir Alex Ferguson can increasingly manage without.

Never mind that statistics belie the relative reputation for industry in, for instance, Tevez. The real problem is that sorcery of his kind is so often associated with vanity – when that is the very charge you could level at Berbatov.

All those sleights and feints are typically seen as the half-hearted gambles of players who stroll the margin between carefree and careless. To Berbatov, however, they represent the crucial, terrifying moment of alchemy – when the base metal of yeoman effort around him must effervesce into gold. And few players of such ambition cede possession so infrequently.

He is surrounded by sweating oarsmen. But the moment he receives the ball – and, typically, it will be no more than a moment, a fleeting touch – the wind changes direction and he unfurls a silken sail. If this is a decadent player, you mourn for the game.

No wonder he has that elegiac bearing, eyes so full of sorrow. When failing even to make the bench for the Champions League final, he watched disconsolately on television in the dressing room. He had played in one such final, aged just 21, for Leverkusen. Of course he cares. But his omission compounded Berbatov's sacrificial quality, as the beautiful and the damned.

So please, Sir Alex, release this mysterious, magical bird from his cage. Back in the Bundesliga, Berbatov would be able to inspire some of the most exuberant young players in Europe, while remaining calm in the eye of their storm. At 34, Raul, for example, has scored 10 goals in 17 league starts for Schalke this season.

Berbatov deserves much more than a poignant supporting role, more than the tantalising vignettes of recent days and weeks – as when the Wigan keeper assumed a stance of literal obeisance, propped on to his knees, to watch the penalty roll past. After all, it is not as if this Cinderella actually wants to go to the ball. Not when there is space to run into instead.